Arecaceae or Palmae (also known by the name Palmaceae, which is considered taxonomically invalid, or by the common name palm tree), the palm family, is a family of flowering plants, the only family in the monocot order Arecales. There are roughly 202 currently known genera with around 2600 species, most of which are restricted to tropical, subtropical, and warm temperate climates. Most palms are distinguished by their large, compound, evergreen leaves arranged at the top of an unbranched stem. However, many palms are exceptions to this statement, and palms in fact exhibit an enormous diversity in physical characteristics. As well as being morphologically diverse, palms also inhabit nearly every type of habitat within their range, from rainforests to deserts.
Palms are among the best known and extensively cultivated plant families. They have been important to humans throughout much of our history. Many common products and foods are derived from palms, and palms are also widely used in landscaping for their exotic appearance, making them one of the most economically important plants. In many historical cultures, palms were symbols for such ideas as victory, peace, and fertility. Today, palms remain a popular symbol for the tropics and vacations.
Whether as shrubs, trees, or vines, palms have two methods of growth: solitary or clusters. The common representation is that of a solitary shoot ending in a crown of leaves. This monopodial behavior may be exhibited by prostrate, trunkless, and trunk-forming members. Some common palms restricted to solitary growth include Washingtonia and Roystonea. Palms may instead grow in sparse to dense clusters. The trunk will develop an axillary bud at a leaf node, usually near the base, from which a new shoot emerges. The new shoot, in turn, produces an axillary bud and a clustering habit results.
Most palms grow in the tropics. They are abundant throughout the tropics, and thrive in almost every habitat therein. Their diversity is highest in wet, lowland tropical forests, especially in ecological "hotspots" such as Madagascar, which has more endemic palms than all of Africa. Colombia may have the highest number of palm species in one country.
It is estimated that only 130 palm species grow naturally beyond the tropics, mostly in the subtropics.
Human use of palms is as old or older than human civilization itself, starting with the cultivation of the date palm by Mesopotamians and other Middle Eastern peoples 5000 years or more ago. Date wood, pits for storing dates, and other remains of the date palm have been found in Mesopotamian sites.
Like many other plants, palms have been threatened by human intervention and exploitation. The greatest risk to palms is destruction of habitat, especially in the tropical forests, due to urbanization, wood-chipping, mining, and conversion to farmland. Palms rarely reproduce after such great changes in the habitat, and palms with a small habitat range are most vulnerable to them. The harvesting of heart of palm, a delicacy in salads, also poses a threat because it is derived from the palm's apical meristem, a vital part of the palm that cannot be regrown.
The use of rattan palms in furniture has caused a major population decrease in these species that has negatively affected local and international markets as well as biodiversity in the area. The sale of seeds to nurseries and collectors is another threat, as the seeds of popular palms are sometimes harvested directly from the wild. At least 100 palm species are currently endangered, and nine species have reportedly recently become extinct.
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